What I missed in the Justification Debate
Tom Wright and John Piper are my two favourite theologians, so when I first found out that they were clashing on something of central importance – what Paul means by ‘justification’ – I dived into the discussion with enthusiasm. I read book after book, response after response, and blog post after blog post. I watched, fascinated, as this subtle and important debate about Paul’s theology turned, despite the caution of the protagonists, into a Trojan horse inside which all sorts of other agendas were hiding: left versus right, New Perspective versus Old Perspective, semper reformanda versus sola scriptura (!), Scot McKnight, Brian Maclaren and Rob Bell versus Mark Driscoll, D. A. Carson and Al Mohler. And, like many I suspect, I tried to work out exactly what they were disagreeing about.
When I first read John Piper’s book, The Future of Justification, it seemed that the debate was about whether justification was by faith alone through Christ alone (Piper), or dependent in part on our works (Wright). Then I read Tom Wright’s response, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, and concluded that it couldn’t possibly be about that, because Wright agreed with Piper that justification was by faith in Christ and not by works; instead, it must be about whether God’s purposes were God-centred, covenant-based and through-Israel-for-the-world (Wright), or man-centred, abstract and individualistic (Piper). But that wasn’t satisfactory either, because Piper agreed with Wright that the gospel is about God, about the world, and about the nations being blessed through the Messiah. It was like that comedy version of ‘You say potato’ when the words are pronounced the same each time round – I could tell they were disagreeing, but I really wasn’t sure what they were disagreeing about.
Under the surface, there were some significant disagreements, of course. In a blog series last year, I identified two big ones, as follows: (1) Was ‘the righteousness of God’ in Paul ultimately about ‘God’s commitment to his glory’ (Piper) or ‘God’s covenant faithfulness’ (Wright)? (2) Is the righteousness of Christ imputed to the believer (Piper), or is this medieval merit-mongering that has been foisted onto Paul, who instead talks simply about union with the Messiah (Wright)? Expressed like this, I figured, the two giants were basically talking about the interpretation of a few Greek words – dikaiosune theou, logizomai, and so on – in a handful of verses (2 Cor 5:21; Rom 3:21-31; 4:1-8; etc), and coming to different conclusions on them. And that was that.
The problem is, that wasn’t the main thing that either writer thought they were disagreeing about. If you had asked both Piper and Wright what the argument was about, they would have said it was about Paul’s view of justification, so it was rather silly of me to reduce it (!) to a discussion about imputation and God’s righteousness. And at that stage, all I could understand of the ‘justification debate’ was that Wright’s view was a bit confusing, Piper was asking for further clarity, and Wright was responding by restating what he’d already said. Which was fine for a while, but it nagged away at me that this ‘solution’ required Wright to be rather more obtuse than he actually is, and that whether or not he was correct, he was clearly quite concerned about something. So more thinking was needed.
Two things happened that helped me see what on earth was going on. The first was the meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Atlanta last autumn, in which Wright spoke on the topic in dialogue with Tom Schreiner (replacing Piper, who was on sabbatical.) The conference resulted in something remarkable: Schreiner and Wright reached ‘full agreement’ on the central and vital issue of what exactly justification was. The key discussion came down to whether justification was ‘on the basis of works’, which Schreiner, like Piper, had seen as the confusing and potentially dangerous element in Wright’s view. Initially, Wright said that he did not recall using this type of ‘basis’ language, to the surprise of all who had read his books (the phrase ‘on the basis of an entire life’ appears as part of the definition of justification in his For Everyone commentaries). However, he subsequently agreed that he had used the phrase, but had intended it in the sense of ‘according to works’, and not, as Piper might have thought, ‘earned by works’ or anything like that. Put in those terms, Schreiner said, he was ‘in full agreement with Wright’s formulation.’
This all prompted huge dancing in the aisles in the Reformed community. Wright had said something almost heretical, having become infatuated with scholarly fashions like the New Perspective; Piper had asked for adjustment or clarity; and now, after numerous patronising put-downs and much dragging of Episcopal feet, Wright had been cajoled into giving it, thus proving that Reformed people were Right All Along. That, when I first read the transcripts and the subsequent blog posts, was how I saw things too. But it still required me to think less of Wright’s intelligence, clarity and humility than he seemed to deserve from everything else he had written, and this was less than satisfactory. Part of me was still confused.
To be continued…